How Does Description Work?

Samuel R. Delany, About Writing -- “During a recent conversation I was having with a friend, he picked up his well-read Vintage paperback of Ulysses, opened it to page 36, and said, 'Listen to this: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” Now, I love that sentence. But why is it better to write that than, say, “Sunlight fell on him through leaves?” Or even to omit it altogether and get on with the story, our day in Dublin?'”

Because you love the sentence, is Delany's reponse.

I'm reminded of Elaine Scarry's point, from Dreaming by the Book, that it's easier to imagine an object as solid if you simultaneously imagine a transparent surface passing over it. She suggests that this literary technique activates some of the psychological mechanisms by which we judge the solidity of objects in real life. She gives examples from Hardy and Proust -- Delany himself, in his own fiction, is a master of this kind of effect. Similarly dazzling images often occur at the start of movies.

Try this thought experiment of Scarry's --

“Imagine the face of a friend. Then on a separate occasion imagine the face of the same friend. But this time place the person at a table by the window where the shadows of an apple tree play across the person's face and shirt. And look at the precise pattern of the shadows. A leaf floats in the window. Let the friend put the leaf in one hand and a book in the other. Perhaps add a second book to the already weighted hand. Even better, have an already present friend verbally specify the sequencing and variations of these images as you produce them. See if it isn't the case that your imagined friend's face now appears more specified, vibrant, dense, mobile, and animate than when you had imagined it before. When I try this, the friend even starts laughing.”

Perhaps that worked better for some of you than for others. For some readers, “Sunlight fell on him through leaves,” is all Joyce's sentence conveys -- those readers presumably gravitate towards authors with prose styles sparser than Joyce's. But for others, the flickering impermanence of the dancing spangles is what makes them feel the solid durability of Mr. Deasy's shoulders, thus transporting them to Dublin in June 1904. As a writer, do you try to include enough detail for the second reader but not enough detail to alienate the first? Or must you pick one of those two readers and ignore the other?

Levi Asher comes across as a reader of the first type when he argues here that the opening image of William Vollman's Europe Central -- ”A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy's whole being.” -- could be shortened to “A telephone is on a desk, looking like an octopus.” Some of the commenters do a good job of disputing this verdict.

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